Man. I guess people were so depressed in the seventies they’d try just about anything. As we live through a fast-forward remix of the Watergate scandal, it’s interesting to take a look back at those strange, hungover times. The Commune is a Danish film set in the seventies, so a rather different milieu than Nixon’s America. But societal malaise was pervasive in Western culture at that time. From the talented but uneven director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration, The Hunt), The Commune is a loosely autobiographical film of his own experiences growing up in that era. It’s a spare tale of a marriage pushed too far, veering into melodrama.
Anyone who watches Mr. Robot knows how hypnotic Rami Malek’s presence can be. He’s mastered an aura of complicated blankness, his glinting, buggy eyes set deep in his flatly inexpressive face. Malek calls on that same bright, disturbed facade to propel the shambolic, disjointed thriller Buster’s Mal Heart from director Sarah Adina Smith. A head-scratcher with a twisty split narrative, the film’s an uneven study of one man’s descent into madness, held together by the force of Malek’s commanding distance.
The TIFF Kids International Film Festival is close to wrapping up, but there’s a few gems that are still worth checking out. While teens are unlikely to be moved by the charmingly chill ghost flick Room 213, it’s perfect for a younger audience, with a simple story and zero horror histrionics.
You know you’ve done it. You’re breezing through Twitter, and some outrageous post pisses you off. You retweet it with a snarky comment, probably signing off with a SMH or FFS. You’re still riled, so you repost it to Facebook. People start commenting, tempers flare. Friends are texting you. Meanwhile, you’re hopping off the bus and headed to a restaurant, checking in your location on Facebook, hardly thinking about the myriad crumbs you’ve left in your wake, info bits awash in the net’s digital ocean. “Digital exhaust” is what Prof. Ron Diebert calls it, the ephemera of our constant internet output waiting to be hoovered up and fed into patterns that reveal more than you could possibly imagine. It’s bad enough here, where we mostly fret about corporations assembling minutely accurate portraits of our likes and dislikes to sell us more stuff. In other places, the governments actively use Facebook and other internet media to mislead and pinpoint activists and critics, rounding them up and arresting them. In some countries, posting the wrong thing can get you killed.
I got the chance to catch Nicholas de Pencier’s documentary Black Code as part of TIFF’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, where he and Prof. Diebert engaged in a Q&A after the screening. The doc has been playing the festival circuit, and it’s well worth checking out, if you want to stress out about how piss-poor your digital security practices probably are. The film was released in 2016, and speaking about its concerns in a contemporary context, it was clear both men recognized how the intervening year has only made their film even more painfully relevant.
Remember the Arab Spring? That democratic fluorescence that erupted in late 2010 in Tunisia and spread with massive demonstrations to Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq? It was a giddy, dangerous time when a predominantly youth movement rose up against autocratic regimes steeped in conservative Islamic ideology. Through riots and violent government crackdowns, people poured into the streets pressing for change. In Egypt, Bassem Youssef was one of the unlikely people at the forefront of the massive cultural shift. A heart surgeon turned satirical TV host, Youssef was dubbed the Egyptian Jon Stewart. Tickling Giants, the documentary from Sara Taksler, follows Youssef’s meteoric rise and lamentable fall, as a funny, principled man becomes an enemy of the state. As Donald Trump demonizes the media in America, Tickling Giants is even more resonant than when it debuted at festivals last year, revealing both the power of satire and its harsh limitations.
The Canadian Western has to be the smallest of film genres. Philip Borsos’ The Grey Fox (1982) pretty much begins and ends the genre. It’s small because Canadians don’t really think we had a western frontier, in the same way America did. That’s not entirely true, but misses a larger point, that really almost all of Canada is frontier. Still. And most of that frontier isn’t west. It’s north. Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk corrects that oversight with an arctic reimagining of John Ford’s classic western The Searchers (1956). Spare and evocative, Kunuk’s Maliglutit brings the Western to the snowbound north with arresting results.
TIFF’s been doing a retrospective on the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. A prodigious wunderkind of the seventies German New Wave, he died of a drug overdose at 37, leaving behind over 40 features and television mini-series made in a brief 15-year career. (Cocaine is a powerful drug in the right nose.) In that burgeoning output, Fassbinder made only one science fiction film. World on a Wire appeared in 1973, a made-for-TV two-parter that virtually disappeared soon after its release. Steeped in a 1970s futurist aesthetic, the film is both wildly dated and amazingly anticipatory, a speculative plunge into the world of virtual reality fully 36 years ahead of The Matrix. Turns out Neo wasn’t the only one popping pills to see what’s really going on.
The big Hollywood musical is alive and well. Sure, it’s an endangered species, but Damien Chazelle’s vibrant La La Land is about as fine a specimen as you can find. Chosen by Toronto’s filmgoing horde as the best film at TIFF this year, La La Land is a throwback tour de force.
Werner Herzog is a living legend, a madman director who insists he’s “the only sane filmmaker.” The director of the eighties remake of Nosferatu and the surreal “let’s drag an entire steamship over a mountain” movie Fitzcaraldo (plus countless others) has largely turned his attention to documentary in the past twenty years. His latest explores a subject close to his fevered, compulsive mind. Into the Inferno follows Herzog and co-director and vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer as they traipse around the globe, visiting the world’s mightiest volcanoes.
Amy Adams is having a pretty great year. It’s only going to get better. With two top-flight films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, she’s this year’s Benedict Cumberbatch. I already wrote about her note-perfect performance as the love-lorn gallery curator in Tom Ford’s chilly noir Nocturnal Animals. Her role in Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral sci-fi feature Arrival is even better. The movie is pretty great, too. But Amy, she should clear some space on her mantle.